Monday, December 20, 2010

Salman Khan, Niira Radia, Ratan Tata and phone tapping

A few years before this, The Indian Express ran a series of reports called the ‘Tata Tapes'. They were about how Tata Tea may have paid extortion money to Ulfa extremists in Assam to allow them to run their plantations in that state. The paper carried transcripts of conversations recorded after Nusli Wadia's telephone was tapped. They featured industrialists Keshub Mahindra and Ratan Tata, Tata Tea's RK Krishna Kumar and former soldier Sam Manekshaw. The Tatas were doing what any company should do — protect their employees — because the State could not. However, the conversations were seen by many as an act of anti-nationalism. This wasn't so much because of the actual actions of the people taped as their conversations which, because they were private and unguarded, lent themselves to being sensational in cold print.
The real story was why Nusli Wadia's phone had been tapped and who had done this. The State denied any role. The Indian Express reporter who broke the story, Ritu Sarin, said she had promised her source (apparently after being made to place her hand on her child's head) that she would never reveal his or her name. Who was it? Was it someone in the police or the government? Was it a corporate enemy, like Wadia's old enemy Reliance? What was the motive behind getting the story published? We do not know.
And now the latest round of leaked tapes features stars from business, politics and journalism talking to the fixer Niira Radia.
Who recorded these conversations? We know this because home secretary GK Pillai says it was his department. Why was the home ministry taping Radia? Pillai says it was because of suspicions of tax evasion. This is astonishing, but not unusual here. In India, the State insists it cannot police effectively unless it is increasingly intrusive. But this isn't true of civilised States. No European nation taps the phones of citizens suspected of not paying taxes. Their solution is increasing competence and efficiency in the State; our solution is always to give the State more power. But this isn't really a solution.
The sensational nature of the Radia conversations must not throw us off the real issue the tapes have thrown up. Corruption is India is caused by a cultural lack of morality. Where there is opportunity, there will likely be corruption. This cannot be resolved through intrusion. In fact, such intrusion encourages corruption. Here's how. Arbitrary spying on citizens gives individuals in the state power over them. The deeper the penetration of the state, the more power in the hands of government individuals, the more opportunity to be corrupt.
Pillai, the most powerful bureaucrat in India, does not even know who leaked the tapes he's in charge of. He says he has not even heard the tapes. Then who is in control of this material? Has someone suppressed some conversations and released others? Did someone pay off an official to leak them? We do not know.
Like Salman talking rubbish, a lot of the material on the Radia tapes can be discarded as the work of loudmouths impressing other loudmouths. Journalists have an exaggerated sense of their power, and we can safely dismiss the idea that a politician will appoint someone or affect a change in policy because a journalist weighed in on the matter.
The real revelation is that the State is up to no good. The newspaper Mint reported that the government records 5,000 phone conversations a day. That's 18 lakh a year. It has a legitimate cause to this only when it comes to saving people's lives from violence and terrorism. But it chooses to do it so arbitrarily, as we have seen in the case of Salman Khan, and so often, as we see with Radia, that they falter when they must do it competently, as they should have done in the case of judge Singh.
From Aakar Patel's write up in HT. More Here
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media. The views expressed by the author are personal.
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